The long title of this vignette is: I Feel Vulnerable About Writing About Vulnerability: Emotion in Research. Its purpose is to consider vulnerability from the position of the researcher by showcasing one reflection about such feelings, sentiments we imagine to be more universal than it would appear in the way we talk about vulnerability in research.

It has been well over a year since I wrote these fieldnotes, and still looking at them today a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach overcomes me.

I remember like it was yesterday: the resistance in the room despite the generosity of the gatekeeper who organized the session, the kindness of the participants in welcoming us to their community space, the shared pleasure we took in eating pizza together, and the fact that we were talking about play and storytelling.

I recall vividly how uncomfortable and flushed I became as the evening wore on, as the group interview grew quieter and increasingly awkward rather than more animated, as in my previous experiences in the project.

After we left, my co-researcher and I were silent, angry with each other and ourselves. I was on the brink of tears and both of us were unable to muster the will to debrief as usual.

Feeling out of my depth and suddenly realizing the significance of all the gently-worded feedback I’d received before that night, I thought about the problem with the idea of ‘play’ in this context.

I wanted to shut down the research project that very moment and never think about it again. Scrap the analysis, the reporting, and the thoughts about next phases and writing up. I wanted to run away from the dirtiness that had surfaced, even though I had followed all the rules and best practices.

This was a breakthrough – personally and professionally – but it felt like a graveyard.

‘Imposter syndrome’ accompanied all these feelings, but now I know that these sensations are not unique to me when dealing with marginalized people and communities in research.

Flashback a few years further to another research project, the one that initially drew my attention to action research and community work.

The emotions were not so bleak but they were strikingly powerful and manifold — joy, fear, uncertainty, rage, frustration, love, and grief to name a few. They were expressed as part of formal interviews but also in and around them at other kinds of events and encounters with the community members, from bathroom breaks to pub nights. 

The naked intimacy of these feelings, and the fact that the researchers were not outside of them, felt like there was something special but also potentially dangerous about the work we were doing. I wondered when I had ever heard researchers talk about being furious and triumphant and vengeful and devastated? Do emotions ever make it into research methods texts?

One exception is feminist theory, which explicitly addresses emotion in research, challenging the ideal of detachment and positing that the feelings of researchers are not only an ingrained part of the process of inquiry, but that, “taken as a whole, they are an untapped resource of information” (Blakely, 2007, p. 61). Researcher emotion is tied here to responsibility — addressing our imperfection as well as the partiality of research in not only our perspective but also in how we deal with outcomes, settings, participants, and the research subject. Anxiety, Kristin Blakely argues based on her overview of feminist scholarship, is the productive basis for assessing how we present research, and if grounded in an ethic of care, can enable deeper understanding of our subject and actors within the research context. Importantly, she concludes that this care must be extended to the researcher as well.

But how practically do we extend this care? In what processes and spaces does recognizing emotion in academic work appear? Where do we reflect on the idea that we can be both vulnerable and dangerous in academic and intellectual work?


Blakely, Kristin. (2007). Reflections of the role of emotion in feminist research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods 6(2), 59- 68.

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